WASHINGTON – Researchers are learning more about Alzheimer’s disease. And they are finding — much like heart disease — that diet and other lifestyle changes can cut the risk of cognitive decline.
“The connection between what you eat and the health of your brain is just as strong as the connection between foods and a healthy heart,” says Dr. Neal Barnard, the author of “Power Foods for the Brain.”
In both cases, limiting saturated and trans fats is essential, as is eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans.
Barnard, who is president of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine based in D.C., says by making the right lifestyle choices, even someone with a family history of Alzheimers, can cut his risk by 70 to 80 percent.
He says look for foods that are high in B vitamins, which protect the brain. They include leafy greens that provide folate, and bananas, a good source of B-6.
Dark berries and grapes also are beneficial, as are nuts and seeds rich in vitamin E. Other good sources of E include spinach, mangoes and sweet potatoes.
Barnard says vitamin E capsules are not a good choice to get your daily dose. But he urges everyone to take B-12 supplements, because that vitamin is not easily absorbed from food.
Another tip to protect your brain is to avoid ingesting traces of metal in food and beverages.
Barnard says Alzheimer’s, the most common form of dementia, is marked by microscopic bits of plaque in the brain that include traces of iron, copper, zinc and aluminum.
He says swap a cast-iron skillet for a stainless steel pan. Filter drinking water that flows through copper pipes. And check labels for antacids and baking powder to make sure they are aluminum-free.
“The choices are really simple,” he says. “You just have to look for them.”
Regular exercise also can help ward off cognitive decline. Barnard says research has shown “people who get a good brisk walk three times a week, actually increase the parts of the brain that are involved in memory.”
Exercising your mind, whether by doing crosswords, taking a class or one of the many cognitive training programs now available online, can help prevent problems too.
But Barnard stresses nothing is going to work if the brain is not getting proper nutrition. And the necessary dietary changes can’t wait for old age.
For most people, the first wrinkle or gray hair comes decades before they reach 75. And similarly, the signs of aging that most of us want to keep at arm’s length “start surprisingly early.” And that is especially true with conditions that affect the brain, he says.